Gandhi in South Africa- Training for Resilience

Gail Carr Feldman Ph.D

Talk presented at the Creativity and Madness Conference, October 2012 by The American Institute for Medical Education, Capetown, South Africa


This talk outlines Gandhi’s early life and the training as a lawyer that took him to South Africa where he experienced first-hand the prejudice and violence that led to his becoming an organizer, and then a leader in peace activism, first to free the 46,000 Indians in slavery in S. Africa, and later to lead the peace movement to establish “Home Rule” in India. The theme of the paper is the concept of Erikson’s “Identity Cohesion” and the ways that Gandhi integrated childhood identifications that led to the confidence and courage to be successful in his career and his life calling.

Service & Peacemaking-

In his youth, Mohandas Gandhi was painfully shy, withdrawn, fearful of being teased, and avoided speaking publicly. The youngest child of four, he was born into a wealthy family in the seaside town of Porbandar, halfway between Bombay and Karachi. He had his own nurse, a concertina and his mother, for whom “there was nothing dearer to my heart than her service… Play had absolutely no fascination for me in preference to my mother’s service. Whenever she wanted me for anything, I ran to her.” (p.110, GT)

The clarity of his focus on serving mother and responding to his mother’s needs is noteworthy. There was never an acknowledgement that he may have needed a mother. Instead, he saw himself as her caregiver. Likewise, his role with playmates was inverted. Instead of being an equal participant in games, young Gandhi took the superior place of mediating their quarrels. These twin values of service and peacemaking were, from early childhood, the central passions of his life.

Identitity Cohesion-

From Gandhi’s Truth, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by psychologist, Erik Erikson, the theme of Identity Cohesion emerged for me as the context in which to view Gandhi’s early development and his life. “The Eight Ages of Man,” from Erickson’s earlier book, Childhood and Society, refers to the stage of adolescence as requiring the achievement of a sense of “identity vs. role confusion.” Childhood identifications can then be integrated with the resulting “accrued confidence” that lends promise to a future career.

In this regard, Gandhi’s ability to identify with feminine service and maternal care set the stage for his tremendous work and commitment to free his countrymen in South Africa from indentured servitude, and his later “housework” on the “cooperative commonwealth,” Tolstoy Farm. In equal measure, I would say, his identification with his father’s “stubborn integrity” allowed for the outrage he felt toward the “cruel custom of child marriage” (he was forced to marry his child bride at age 13) and fueled his energy for creating social reform. Gandhi would say later, “As heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can change the world.”

Given that Gandhi was born into six generations of home ministers, or prime ministers, it seemed natural that following his father’s death when Gandhi was sixteen, that he consider training as a lawyer. Although he doubted his ability to pass the examinations, he was encouraged to take the three-year course in England and became determined to do so. Great courage was required to make this happen, as he had to defy the subcaste elders to which the Gandhi’s belonged. The elders judged it impossible for Hinduism to be practiced in London, and because he insisted on going ahead he was declared an “outcaste.” Erikson would say that his courage at this point was a matter of the survival of his identity.

Erik Erikson had a personal investment in his sense of the importance of identity. He was born in Germany in 1902 to a Scandanavian mother and a father with the surname of Solomonson. His father apparently abandoned them when Erik was a small child. He later had a step-father with the name of Hamburger. Once grown, he left both surnames behind and named himself, Erik son-of-Erik. I can’t think of a more powerful declaration of one’s identity.

The Barrister-

Gandhi survived the years in London, experimenting with British dress, eating meat, and conversing with theosophists and various Christians who sought to convert him. While he had affinity for the New Testament, especially The Sermon on the Mount “went straight to my heart,” but he would not accept the notion that Jesus was the only “son of God,” and he abhorred the martial and punitive Old Testament. A prominent author and speaker on transcendentalism and theosophy at that time was the Russian, Madame Helena Blavatsky. Gandhi spoke with her on several occasions.

She and one of her followers from England, Judge Thomas Troward, were instrumental in saving the sacred texts of India from burning by the Christian missionaries. There is now a commemorative stamp with her picture honoring her work in India.

When Gandhi returned to India following his studies and having passed the bar, he learned that his beloved mother had died. His internalized mother would support him in bringing to life “a rare energy of loving self-denial and self-denying love,” and the ability to delight in fasting, as his mother had. This practice of fasting would be a way of communicating his commitment to peace later on.

As a London educated barrister, he was sought out to formulate a lawsuit in Transvaal for a Muslim merchant. In April of 1893 Gandhi crossed the Indian Ocean to South Africa. His first day in court he was asked by the judge to remove his turban. He refused and had to leave the court. His education on the miserable story of race relations had begun, and the learning was quick. Traveling by train to Pretoria, a white man refused to sit in the first class compartment with him. Gandhi refused the order to move to the third class and was thrown off the train. He was turned away from the Grand National Hotel, but befriended by an American Negro who took him to his “Family Hotel” and fed him a vegetarian meal in an integrated dining room. Later, Gandhi would be faced with a lynch mob and beaten. (His loss of innocence, to me, is reminiscent of Siddhartha leaving the palace and discovering the everyday suffering and violence of humanity).

Gandhi’s unhesitating commitment to freedom and justice, which Erikson equates with a cohesive identity, would never falter. After settling his law case by mediation, he was to return to Bombay, but a farewell dinner changed his course. He had seen a small notice in the corner of a newspaper announcing the Franchise Amendment Act, which revoked the right of all “Asiatics” and their descendents to ever be able to vote in Natal. This was the final outrage for Gandhi. He’d already learned about the dismal treatment the “coolies,” as Asians were called, received. The “leading citizens” who were his hosts that evening asked him to stay-on for another month. His intended one- year in Africa eventually became twenty-one.

The Problem in South Africa; the Beginning of Activism-

There were 46,000 Indians in Natal, 1,000 more than the white Europeans, and both groups were outnumbered 10 to 1 by the hundreds of thousands of Zulus. The whites were beginning to panic. In one day, Gandhi collected 500 signatures on the first petition in the history of the area. The bill still passed, but undaunted, Gandhi and his friends, both Christian and Muslim, then collected 10,000 signatures to affix to petition to the Colonial Secretary- again the bill was allowed to pass. So Gandhi applied to the Natal Supreme Court and was accepted. He then lost all nervousness- spoke clearly, was “ruthlessly honest,” and established himself as a force in the community. He also had to stand up to an old “friend,” Mehtab, when he found he was bringing prostitutes into his house while he was at the office.

As Erikson noted: “Identity solutions can lead to dissolution of friendships.”

The Householder-

In the Hindu sense, the center of a man’s territory is his ‘house,” and it includes family, community, and occupation. Gandhi integrated his profession (his legal competence), his passion as a reformer, and his “religious sense of a universal truth,” and over a 15 year period created Tolstoy Farm as a hostel for co-workers and followers, and an agrarian settlement. He retrieved his family from India in 1896, and while in India had given the world an awareness of the plight of Indians in S. Africa. So, on his return he was the best known and also the most hated of Indians. He was badly beaten and narrowly avoided a lynch mob. But now, in the psychological sense of having achieved what Erikson calls Intimacy and Generativity, Gandhi stood for compassion. He would not name his assailants. He refused to support a reaction of violence in response to violence.

Peace Warrior-

The indentured laborers of S. Africa were nothing more than slaves. They could be beaten, arrested with no recourse, restricted to certain areas, and separated from their families. In spite of the harsh and inhumane treatment of the Indians by the British, when war broke out against the Boers, the Dutch settlers, even though Gandhi greatly admired their fighting spirit, he felt he must assist the Empire as a non-combatant. He organized an ambulance corps consisting of eleven hundred Indians and while they only saw two months of service, Gandhi was proud of the example they served of Satyagrapha (from the Sanskrit meaning “striving for truth”) or Truth Force, Gandhi’s term for non-violent resistance. He insisted on compassion for one’s opponent. Gandhi was deeply disappointed and even outraged at the British post-war rule- handled mainly by ex-army officers intent on keeping Indians in their place and treating them with contempt. He returned to India with his family, fully intent on settling down there.

In Calcutta, 1901 he attended the Indian National Congress, discovering the two foremost leaders, Gandadhar Tilak, an extremist and fanatic revolutionary, and Gopal Gokhale, a politically conflicted monastic and poet, dedicated to rural reform. These two leaders had divided nationalist politics. Gandhi would not join either side, but simply committed himself to the Untouchables and the extreme lack of sanitation in the city. He then set out with a towel, a blanket, shirt and a jug of water on a pilgrimage through India- 3rd class. He curtailed his experiment at the Ganges after offering a penny at the Well of Knowledge and being told his “niggardliness would land him in hell.” Back in Bombay, he received a cable telling him the struggle there had intensified and had shifted to British Transvaal. Gandhi returned to S. Africa and opened a law office in Johannesburg.

Two events induced his final break with the identity of a highly educated, well-dressed and fair-skinned “coloured” citizen of the British Empire: a new war- the British against the Zulus, and a new law- the Black Law. These final insults caused Gandhi to realize the impossibility of a non-white to ever think of himself as anything but black. Once again he organized a small ambulance corps and since the white Europeans would not nurse the injured Zulus, he and his group tended to them. And “we liked our work. The Zulus seemed to feel as if God had sent us…” From this time on, he vowed “celibacy” and “poverty,” as he believed this would insure that he would not shrink from the “lowliest of duties or the largest risks.”

His commitment would be challenged rather immediately, as the Black Law required that all Indians, even children above age eight, must register, be fingerprinted, and carry a certificate on their person at all times- or be fined, jailed, or deported. Meetings of the “Passive Resistance Association” began at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg (known as the “Jewish theatre”) and eventually had to move to the grounds of the Pretoria Mosque when attendance reached over two thousand. (Among the whites, it was mostly the Jews who were sympathetic to Gandhi’s cause. It was a German Jew, a wealthy architect named Herman Kallenbach, who bought Tolstoy Farm for Gandhi and his followers.)

Gandhi happily went to jail after refusing an order to leave the Transvaal. One hundred fifty Indians volunteered to be incarcerated. Upon his release, he agreed to obey the law and register himself, and encouraged others to do the same. General Smuts had made a “gentleman’s agreement” with him to revoke the original registration law if the Indians went through the process voluntarily. When Smuts reneged on his promise to repeal the Asiatic Act, a card-burning ceremony took place. Two thousand registration cards were burned in the largest caldron that could be found in Johannesburg. The press likened it to the Boston Tea Party. It was a party- filled with pride and gaity, the intention of which was to make “the great adversary- the Transvaal government, the British government, all government- acknowledge the power of the weak.”

The next challenge arose when the government refused to revoke a three-pound yearly tax on all ex-indentured laborers. Another promise broken. The last straw was when a Justice of the Cape Colony Supreme Court ruled that only Christian marriages were legal. It in effect invalidated all Hindu, Moslem and Parsi marriages, and made Indian wives concubines.

A large number of women then joined the active resisters, protested in the court houses of Natal and Transvaal, and were all imprisoned. This outrage encouraged the indentured Indian miners in the Newcastle coal- mines to strike. Five thousand Indians left their compounds with blankets and a few items of clothing and soon this “peace army” grew to fifty thousand, with several thousand filling the jails, including Gandhi and his friend, Kallenbach. (nov.1913)

The “pilgrimage” to Tolstoy Farm was interrupted by the government herding many thousands onto trains at Balfour, and transporting them back to the mine compounds in Newcastle, which had been turned into concentration camps with wire-enclosed stockades- another example, it was said, of “officially sanctioned slavery.” In one place, the military had fired on, wounded and killed a number of Indians. When the news reached India, the outcry was heard in London and then sent back to India, where the British Viceroy strongly criticized the South African authorities, resulting in a commission to inquire into the grievances of the Indian residents.

The eventual creation of the Indian Relief Bill was adopted by the Union Parliament in Capetown on June 30, 1914. The three-pound tax on Indian laborers was lifted, indentured labor would cease, Hindu, Moslem and Parsi marriages were declared valid, free Indians could continue to enter the country, and wives could come from India to join their husbands. Gandhi hailed the new law as the “Magna Charta” of South African Indians, a victory for the Soul Force. He hoped it would become universal and revolutionize social ideals. Now, he could leave S. Africa for good. He was ready to return to India and pursue Home Rule, the Manifesto he’d written in 1909, declaring that Home Rule equals Self Rule and Self Rule equals Self-Control. “Only a people in command of itself can command respect and freedom.” He would pursue Home Rule, or the reinforcing of an Indian identity, through civil disobedience. As he left his South African home, he declared that his 21 years there had been “sweet and bitter.”

In commenting on Gandhi’s unique, spiritual, and “global” identity, let’s start with his image: The image of Gandhi, the man so committed to humane treatment and independence from oppression for all people, a commitment that he was willing to suffer and die for, is always the image of the man dressed in the white knee-length smock, with elongated loincloth and sandals. He adopted this dress in Africa after the killings of the Indian coal miners. He abandoned Western dress once and for all to mourn the loss of his countrymen and declare his commitment to human liberty. (Integrity)

We also associate Gandhi with the image of his emaciated body. He had learned from his mother, who fasted regularly and with pleasure, that fasting was a way to achieve communion with the unseen, unity with God.

It was also a way in which Gandhi “communicated” or influenced his people to embrace a spiritual belief in freedom and reconciliation. He fasted for Hindu-Moslem unity. “Nothing, evidently which I say or write can bring the two communities together…” (p 82 Fischer) So he would fast to “influence those who loved me.” He never fasted against the British, or used fasting as a manipulation. He wished to communicate the need for “mutual respect and tolerance of the devotees of different religions… and a change of heart among Englishmen who compose the government of India.”

Another aspect of Gandhi’s identity lies in the way he embraced the feminine and the “power of motherliness,” as symbolized in the cow- a pervasive ingredient of Indian culture. (p.111, Erikson) His deep identification with his mother, which allowed him to cater to her as a boy, led to the ability to later become his father’s nurse, and then to care for thousands of followers, all of India, and finally, to dedicate his life to peace and unification of all of mankind.

The best description of Gandhi, I believe, comes from his own writing about what constitutes the perfect karma yogi: “He is a devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm, who has dedicated mind and soul to God…” (p.15, Fischer)

When Gandhi was criticized for trusting General Smuts during the protests of the Asiatic Act, he declared, “Forgiveness is the ornament of the brave.” Gandhi’s willingness to return over and over to negotiations resulted in his victorious Indian Relief Bill. His staunch faith in his stand for human rights also resulted in Smuts’ great respect, and he became a life- long friend to Gandhi.

“Mahatma,” or “Great Soul in Peasants Garb” was an appellation from the poet, Tagore, who won the Nobel prize for literature in l913. These two outstanding Indians revered one another and both prayed for “the magnificent harmony of all human races.”

Gandhi called himself, “a Christian and a Hindu and a Moslem and a Jew.” It was said that he, a Hindu, was the world’s most Christ-like person.


Erikson, Erik. Gandhi’s Truth. New York: W.W. Norton, l969.

Fischer, Louis. Gandhi- His Life & Message for the World. New York: Signet Classics, 1st published 1954; 1982; 2010.

Needs and Objectives of Talk: Many patients in psychotherapy present with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or self-doubt in relation to work or to a romantic relationship. These symptoms often call into question the sense of having a strong and stable identity. Gandhi is an example of one who integrated childhood identities- with the feminine maternal provider and the masculine active protector. His anger and outrage about forced child marriage, racial and class servitude was directed and utilized to support his identity as a social reformer. His childhood and young adult development serve as an example of achieving developmental milestones in the area of identity cohesion. From Gandhi’s life, the clinician is provided with a role model for using patience and consistency in helping both client’s conflicts and struggles with identification. Therapists working with resistant, angry, or anxious patients can learn a great deal from Gandhi’s calm persistence in working with conflict and finding healthy solutions.


  1. Learn from Gandhi a model for dealing with resistance

  2. Accept change as a slow, client-centered process

  3. Discover the elements of a firmly resolved identity

  4. Find how identity impacts sexuality, career choice, confidence and consistency